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The old Jeep at Chiricahua National Monument

I should have taken the Cash for Clunkers deal. In August I wrote about why I did not: My 1992 Jeep was in fine condition with only about 125,000 miles on the odometer. I looked forward to driving it for 125,000 more.

But fate intervened. I was driving south on Calle Lorca between San Mateo and St. Michael’s Drive when a pickup truck swerved head-on into my lane, smashing the front of my car. As pungent green radiator fluid poured onto the asphalt, the other driver apologized and I called 911. Twenty minutes later an officer arrived and asked for the usual documents. My license and insurance card were in my wallet, but I searched through my glove compartment again and again and could find only last year’s registration. The renewal sticker was on the plate, but the cop was unsympathetic. I got a ticket and my disabled Jeep was towed to a body shop at the Santa Fe Auto Park.

As I drove around town for the next few days in a rented Impala with Texas plates (I’m pretty sure some teenagers jeered at me on West Alameda), I longed to get my trusty Jeep back on the road again. Then the insurance adjustor called to tell me that he had declared it a total loss. Though he estimated repairs at less than $2,400 — a new grill, radiator, and air conditioning condensor and some minor body work — it was cheaper for the insurance company to pay me the book price and then sell the wreck to a junkyard.

There was another catch. Since the other driver was 100 percent liable, his insurer was obliged to pay for my rental while I waited for the Jeep to be repaired. But since it had been totaled there were no repairs to wait for. I was summarily informed that I must return the Impala or pick up the charges myself and that, in a few more days, I would be responsible for storage costs for the Jeep. In New Mexico, anyway, insurers can get away with that.

I drove down to the body shop for the last rites: removing the ski rack, license plate, and various belongings. I was cleaning out the storage compartment between the two front seats and there it was: the missing registration. Just the day before I’d paid for a duplicate — $5 plus a $20 “convenience fee” at MVD Express.

I brought the papers to traffic court and sat for an hour and a half listening to all the sad stories. There was the Mexican immigrant who didn’t have his registration or any of his documents because his wife was holding them hostage in a divorce dispute. There was the old man who was only allowed to drive to the McDonald’s on Pacheco Street but had strayed a few blocks north to pay a utility bill. There was one person after another asking for 60- and even 90-day extensions to pay a $100 fine. The judge, Ann Yalman, was kind, sympathetic, and fair. When my turn came, she dismissed the citation. I left the court feeling a little luckier and thankful that it was only a car I’d lost.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review